KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – There are times, when Cambrea Sturgis is preparing to run sprints in high school track and field meets, that competitors approach the A.L. Brown sophomore as if they feel sorry for her.
After taking one look at Sturgis, all 5 feet and 98 pounds of her, it’s almost as if the other runners want to make sure some “little girl” hasn’t wandered away from her caretakers and wound up on the starting blocks.
“When we’re warming up, they’re like, ‘You run the 200? You’re so smaaaall,’” Sturgis said, playfully impersonating her competitors’ concerned drawl.
When the starter’s gun sounds, however, all pity for Sturgis disappears -- just like many of the other runners’ chances of winning.
Sturgis usually motors her way to the finish line before the rest of the field and gets an entirely different reaction when everyone meets after the race.
“They usually say, ‘You’re a fast little girl!’” Sturgis said, peering through a pair of glasses that make her look more like a studious middle-school student than a dominating high-school sprinter.
“I just say, ‘Thank you!’ I just go out there and do my thing.”
By now, though, when the diminutive Sturgis steps up, most people at the meet should know she’s one of the fastest 100- and 200-meter runners in the state.
This season, Sturgis has been the class of the MECKA 4A conference, as she hasn’t lost a race in either event. She has posted times that rank among the best in North Carolina, and she’s an honest-to-goodness threat to win titles at upcoming regional and state meets.
Sturgis already is the best girls 100-meter sprinter in A.L. Brown history, as she owns the school record of 11.88 seconds. And with a personal-best time of 24.37 in the 200, Wonders coach Sara Newell believes that A.L. Brown record also is attainable for Sturgis this season.
“It’s obviously great as a coach to know you’ve got somebody that you can depend on,” Newell said. “And on top of it, she works hard. A lot of times, there are really talented kids that don’t put in the work effort, and they don’t get any better. But Cambrea puts in the work, so she continues to get better.”
Run, Cambrea, run!
Although it’s known as a tall person’s game, basketball was Sturgis’ first sports love. She lived to play hoops, and she was pretty good at it, too. But in seventh grade at Kannapolis Middle School, folks watching her play ball thought her skills would be more valuable in another sport.
“I’d be going up and down the court, and people would say, ‘Oh, she’s fast! She should try out for track!’” Sturgis recalled. “I did (try out for track), and I liked it.”
Sturgis was thrilled to relay the news of her track transition to her father, Darius, who actually was known throughout A.L. Brown annals for his own running prowess.
Darius, in fact, still owns the Wonders’ record for the boys 200 meters with a time of 21.78 set in 1994.
“I wanted to (run track) because he did it,” the younger Sturgis said. “I got my speed from my dad. It’s in the blood.”
But after her first few middle school races, Sturgis began to wonder if the speed gene might have skipped a generation.
“It was rough,” she said. “I had people beating me. I was last in races. I was thinking, ‘I don’t think this is my sport.’”
But the next year saw a turnaround. Sturgis began running AAU track with a club called the Salisbury Speedsters. Many days, she practiced with the middle school team, and then she would go work out with the Speedsters.
The more time she spent on the track, the better she began to understand the nuances of the sport – things like arm movement, leg lift and generating power out of the starting blocks.
“Everything started changing,” Sturgis said. “I started beating people, I started making friends. For me, it became, ‘I’m really loving track.’”
Eating is fundamental
Sturgis still often attends two track practices a day, working out with the Wonders before hurrying off to join the Speedsters coaches. She said most of her life is dedicated to improving at the sport. She trains hard, drinks plenty of water, and she gets the necessary rest for her body to recover.
The one area that needs improvement, however, is her diet.
Despite her slender build, Sturgis is known for having a major appetite. There are times she could take down her brother, Cameron, in an eating contest.
Her favorite dish, she said, is chicken and rice made by her mom, LaShawnda. On chicken-and-rice days, her weight can balloon to 100 pounds.
“I will eat the whole house,” Sturgis said with a sheepish grin. “At dinner, I’ll eat 2 1/2 plates, then later on I’ll eat some more.”
Then, it’s likely on to Sturgis’ other favorite hobby: sleeping.
“I will sleep all day – to like 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” she said. “If I’m not running, I’m sleeping. If I’m not sleeping, I’m running. That’s all I do.”
This much is clear: What Sturgis is doing is working.
Sturgis definitely was in a class by herself at last month’s Cabarrus County Track and Field Championships, where she won the 100 (11.88) and 200 (24.37) while setting personal records.
In the process, Sturgis was named the meet’s outstanding female track performer and helped the Wonders take the county team title for the second consecutive season.
“She came out with a great 100,” Newell said. “Right out of the blocks, she was away from everybody else. It was the same thing with the 200. Coaches left there just really, really impressed with her.”
Sturgis played a vital role on the Wonders’ gold-medal-winning 4x100 and 4x400 relay teams at the county meet, too. Sturgis was joined by Jessika Stanback, Azania Louis and Akeena Maxwell to win the 4x100 in 49.06, while she teamed with Stanback, Avery Crowley and Jela Lewter to take the 4x400 with a time of 4 minutes, 6.04 seconds.
“Honestly, I know her 100 and 200 are impressive, but the biggest thing to me is her 400 is just as impressive,” Newell said. “People just don’t see it. She runs the 4x400, and she takes that anchor leg, and she goes with it. She doesn’t like to lose.”
But while Sturgis’ wins are eye-catching, equally impressive is the fact that she’s clocking such fast times while carrying a heavy chip on her shoulder.
As a freshman last season, Sturgis failed to qualify for the outdoor state meet. While she made it all the way to the finals at the indoor state meet in February, she didn’t perform as well as she would have liked, taking third place in the 55 meters.
“I don’t know if it was me being nervous being at states for the first time or the blocks or what,” she said. “I just ran so bad! Hopefully, that doesn’t happen (at the outdoor meet) this year.”
So Sturgis said she goes into many of her training sessions with an eye toward improving on her first state-championship-meet experience. She isn’t so much worried about what place she takes; it’s more about putting forth her best performance on the biggest stage.
If Sturgis is able to walk off the track knowing that she gave her best effort, she’s willing to live with whatever results may come.
“I’m just hoping to hit 11.5 in the 100 and a high 23 in the 200,” Sturgis said. “I’m not looking to win or lose; I’m just trying to get those numbers and help my team win.
“It doesn’t matter about my size, my age or whatever. I’m more dedicated to running than anything, so that’s why I go out there and do my best.”
And if Sturgis does her best at the state meet and finds a place at the top of the podium, the small Wonder won’t have to worry.
Gold medals, you see, are one size fits all.